As the Green Bay Packers prepare to mark the 100th anniversary of the franchise's founding on Sunday, Jason Wilde ranks the five best offensive players — excluding quarterbacks — in Packers history.
5. Sterling Sharpe
When Sterling Sharpe signed up for his first email address, the screen name the Green Bay Packers star wide receiver chose was inspired by something his young quarterback did quite often in the early 1990s.
“My email address was specifically based on playing with Brett Favre — ‘throwto84,’” Sharpe recalled with a laugh. ”If you ever had any doubts, just throw it to me.”
And Favre did — often. Sharpe, whose NFL career was cut short in 1994 by a neck injury, played seven seasons and was on a Pro Football Hall of Fame trajectory at the time of his injury, having caught 595 passes for 8,134 yards and 65 touchdowns, never missing a game after the Packers took him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 1988 NFL Draft. He led the NFL in receptions four times (1989, 1990, 1992, 1993) and led the league in receiving touchdowns in 1992 and 1994.
In his final three seasons, with Favre at quarterback for all but the first two-plus games, Sharpe was the most productive pass catcher in the NFL, logging 314 receptions for 3,854 and 42 TDs.
“When I played with him and he was the young guy, he trusted us. Especially, he trusted me,” Sharpe said. “So he gave me more opportunities. He didn't have to be perfect.”
Sharpe was on his way to his fifth Pro Bowl in 1994 when, during the Packers' final game at Milwaukee County Stadium on Dec. 18, he engaged with Atlanta Falcons defensive back Brad Edwards during an Edgar Bennett run play. The seemingly innocuous collision left Sharpe lying on the turf, writhing in pain with a neck stinger. He was able to walk off under his own power, and he was back on the field the next week, catching nine passes for 132 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-19 win at Tampa Bay.
But he never set foot on the playing field again, later diagnosed with an abnormality with the first two vertebrae in his neck that required fusion surgery.
“I would say for the (Hall of Fame) voters: Don’t not vote for him because his career was shortened,” Favre told the Talk of Fame Network in 2015. “I know that other players have gotten into the Hall of Fame with shortened careers due to injury. Had he continued to play, there’s no telling what type of numbers he would have continued to put up. He would’ve been the best receiver by far that I played with. For a two-year span, he was by far the best. He was an unbelievable player.”
4. Paul Hornung
Vince Lombardi once called Hornung “the best all-around back ever to play football,” and while leading Lombardi’s 1960s Packers to three championships, Hornung certainly lived up to that lofty praise with his versatile game. As the left halfback and Lombardi’s “key operative” in the fabled power sweep, Hornung was often the one who would “run to daylight” on the famous play. But he also was an adept passer — Hornung played quarterback at Notre Dame, winning the 1956 Heisman Trophy as a senior — and highly effective as a kicker, pass-catcher and blocker.
Hornung, who was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, played on four of Lombardi’s five championship teams and finished his Packers career having scored 760 points (including a then-record 176 in 1960, a record that stood until LaDainian Tomlinson scored 186 in 2006).
In fact, to hear Hornung’s former teammate and fellow Pro Football Hall of Famer Jerry Kramer tell it, Lombardi may never have come to the Packers after serving as the New York Giants offensive coordinator if the Packers hadn’t had Hornung on the roster. Lombardi saw Hornung doing in his offense what another Hall of Famer, Frank Gifford, did in New York.
“When you talk about Paul Hornung, you have to remember how critical he was in the decision that coach Lombardi made to come to Green Bay,” Kramer said. “If you think back, we didn’t know who Bart Starr was at that point. He was competing with a few other guys — Babe Parilli, Joe Francis and Lamar McHan — and Bart was back and forth (to the bench) the first couple of years after Lombardi got there.
“But I definitely remember Lombardi saying that Hornung was going to be his Gifford. And obviously we all know how critical the sweep was to the Lombardi offense. So Hornung may have been the key to getting Lombardi to come to Green Bay.”
Retired Packers general manager Ron Wolf likes to tell the story of arriving in 1991 and asking three of the scouts he inherited — Red Cochran, Dave Hanner and Ray Wietecha, all of whom were assistant coaches under Lombardi — which of Lombardi’s players they’d take No. 1 in a draft. They all said Hornung.
“For them to give that kind of praise to a player,” Wolf said, “that’s remarkable.”
3. Jim Taylor
As much as Lombardi loved Hornung, the legendary coach and the team’s other star ball-carrier, Taylor, often butted heads. After the 1966 season, when Taylor played out his option and signed with the expansion New Orleans Saints, Lombardi criticized him publicly for it. The two later made their peace, however, and when Lombardi left the Packers for the Washington Redskins, he showed his new team film clips of Taylor running in his offense.
"I certainly played with numerous wonderful Lombardi teams and won many, many championships and many MVP awards and what have you ... but I certainly have no regrets," Taylor told the Racine Journal Times in 1991. “I played for the Green Bay Packers and I left by my own choice. Lombardi came down (to New Orleans) after he left Green Bay and we were still good friends.
"He realized he left the Green Bay Packers for the Washington Redskins. People leave for whatever reasons and it's their own business. I have no qualms. I have no problems with anyone and I just continue to live my life by my standards and my expectations."
The last pure fullback to win the league rushing title, Taylor ended his Packers career as the franchise leader in yards (8,207), rushing touchdowns (81) and 100-yard rushing games (26). His best season came in 1962, when he won the NFL MVP as he rushed for 1,474 yards and scored 19 touchdowns during a 14-game regular season. He then carried 31 times for 85 yards in the Packers’ NFL championship game victory over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium.
Taylor, who died last October at age 83, was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and held the franchise rushing record until Ahman Green broke it in 2009.
"That son-of-a-gun is the toughest son-of-a-gun in the league," Hornung, another Hall of Famer, once said of the undersized (6-foot, 216-pound) Taylor. "I've seen him run over guys 30 or 40 pounds bigger than he is like that."
2. Forrest Gregg
There is some debate among historians whether Lombardi considered Gregg or Hornung to be the best player he ever coached. But there’s no doubt that Lombardi thought very highly of Gregg, who was selected to nine Pro Bowls during his career and in 1994 was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team.
Gregg, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 along with his quarterback and draft classmate Bart Starr on his first ballot, wasn’t just a great blocker, but also a versatile one.
Gregg played 11 games as a rookie and started at right guard. He was then called into the U.S. Army and missed all of the 1957 season before returning to the team in 1958. When Lombardi arrived in 1959, Gregg took over at right tackle, although he also played guard when injuries struck Kramer.
“He was so talented, he could play two or three positions,” Starr once said. “You probably could have put him at center and he would have adapted to that. He was special.”
In his 1963 book “Run to Daylight,” Lombardi wrote that the 6-foot-4, 249-pound Gregg was “a real football player. When you combine all this in an offensive tackle with his ability and willingness to play guard, you’ve got quite a man.”
Gregg won five titles playing for Lombardi, then played one final season for the Dallas Cowboys in 1971, when they won Super Bowl VI under Tom Landry.
"I'm a fortunate man," Gregg once said. "I've played for two of the best men who ever coached, Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry. They are very special people."
1. Don Hutson
When Hutson entered the NFL from Alabama in 1933, the draft hadn’t been invented yet. So the All-American was able to pick his own team, and he received a recruiting letter from Chicago Bears coach George Halas.
"It sounded like I was going to have to pay Halas to play for the Bears," Hutson told longtime NFL reporter Vito Stellino in 1988. “In the last sentence, he got down to the gist of the letter. He said if I made the team, he would pay me $50 a week."
Hutson passed, accepting a better offer from Curly Lambeau to play for the Packers for $300 a week. It wound up being money very well spent by Lambeau.
A member of the NFL's 50th and 75th anniversary teams, he should find himself on the league’s 100th anniversary team, too. Named All-Pro nine times from 1933 to 1945, he won two MVP awards and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in its charter class in 1963. He’s credited with revolutionizing the passing game during a run-oriented period, retiring with 18 NFL records.
On Sept. 22, 1935, the Packers faced Halas’ Bears at City Stadium. On the first play of the game from the Packers’ 17-yard line, Arnie Herber threw a pass downfield as far as he could throw it. Hutson ran past Bears safety Beattie Feathers and caught the ball in stride for the game's only touchdown. And the legend of the Alabama Antelope was born.
"He would glide downfield, leaning forward as if to steady himself close to the ground,” Lambeau once said in describing Hutson. “Then, as suddenly as you gulp or blink an eye, he would feint one way and go the other, reach up like a dancer, gracefully squeeze the ball and leave the scene of the accident — the accident being the defensive backs who tangled their feet up and fell trying to cover him."
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.